Peasant Autonomy
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Story 69

A village in Northern Italy – 1920 (2)

The cavalry unit turns around

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Mendhak)

Northern Italy.

“Orèèèste, Orèèèste,” the voice sounds, long and drawn-out, from the other side of the canal, “go away, leave. Listen to me. The devils on horseback are coming to catch you. Go away.” Oreste, a peasant with a lean face and a grey cap, looks inquiringly in the direction of the sound. When he looks further around, he sees a large group of horsemen in the distance. He goes red with anger, and smashes his cap onto the ground. “I have lived here for forty years, I have worked here for thirty-two years. I won't leave. Not for anybody, not even for God, Jesus and Maria themselves.”
It is autumn, Saint Martin's Day; dozens of farmworkers and peasants, men, women and children, walk to the village for the festival. While Oreste is shouting and shaking his fist, his wife Nella calls out to people passing by. “They want to evict us from our land. But we have a lease contract. Where will we go with our children?”

Agriculture, as it had been, is in a poor state. Big threshers and other new equipment make many farmworkers dispensable. Railroads and large iron ships drive the grain prices down by cheap imports from far away. Large landowners lower the wages for the farmworkers and raise the rents for the peasants. When they find you troublesome, they turn you out, contract or no contract. When there is resistance, they ask for the assistance of the army.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Laura Beasley)

Northern Italy.

“In the name of the law, leave your farm,” calls the captain of the cavalry unit to Oreste high from his horse. “Which law?” shouts Oreste back, “the law is always on the side of the padrone, but where can I sleep with the children?” “In the prison, if you don't leave immediately,” the captain answers drily. Then, he turns around and rides back to the unit waiting a short distance away. “Draw your swords,” he shouts, and twenty-five swords rise into the sky, “forward march!”.

In the meantime, Nella has succeeded in gathering together about eighty people. Oreste shouts to the men, “Come here, take all these poles, then we can defend ourselves, all together!” When the horsemen are approaching, Nella moves forward with the women, singing together socialistic songs about the union. Then, they sit down while singing, and a moment later they even lie down. Behind them the men stand, holding the long poles threateningly. They are also singing.
At the last moment the captain shouts the command to stop. He doesn't want to have a massacre. The situation in the country is already so tense that this could become the spark to the tinder, and then he would be blamed for it. The cavalry unit turns around.


The masterful, five-hour-long movie 1900 (1976), from the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci tells the story of the big changes in the lives of peasants in the first half of the twentieth century; the great agricultural strike of 1908, mechanisation, fascism, resistance and liberation.

Go to:
= part 1: Olmo is growing up - an estate in northern Italy – 1910 (1), story 53.
= the next page: Shadow-puma - mountain region in Peru – around 1920 (1), story 70.
= the Table of contents, story 69.